The role of school teachers in promoting Black Lives Matter and activism

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A person holding a sign reading "Black Lives Matter" takes part in an All Black Lives Matter march, organized by Black LGBTQ+ leaders, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 14, 2020. Photo credit: Ringo Chiu/Reuters

For decades, classrooms have had a tug of war over what version of history kids are taught, and how they’re taught it. School teachers help shape the mind, ideology, and sometimes values of a child. During America’s current national reckoning over Black people dying at the hands of police, what is the role of the school teacher?

For decades, classrooms have had a tug of war over what version of history kids are taught, and how they’re taught it. School teachers help shape the mind, ideology, and sometimes values of a child. During America’s current national reckoning over Black people dying at the hands of police, what is the role of the school teacher?

“Now there are teachers who do avoid talking about race, Black and otherwise. … But there are many teachers who do believe that as a part of their racial identity and heritage, it is important to address these issues," says Tondra Loder-Jackson, Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She's also author of "Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement."

During the civil rights movement, how did teachers do their jobs? 

Loder-Jackson says that it’s first important to underscore that the mere identity of being a Black teacher in the Jim Crow south was threatening to white people. 

“There actually is a fable or myth in civil rights history and folklore that Black teachers were not involved in the movement. Some of this misconception relates to the actions of some school administrators — some principals, some Black college presidents who acquiesced to the demands of the white power structure by forbidding their students and faculty from protesting, or threatening to discipline or fire them if they did,” she says. “And so although that was the case for some Black administrators but certainly not all of them, there are examples of many more teachers who were activists.”  

“Now there are teachers who do avoid talking about race, Black and otherwise. … But there are many teachers who do believe that as a part of their racial identity and heritage, it is important to address these issues," says Tondra Loder-Jackson. Photo courtesy of Tondra L. Loder-Jackson

Loder-Jackson recalls that in January 1965, more than 100 teachers participated in the Selma teachers march from an elementary school to the Dallas County courthouse to register to vote. This march preceded the Selma to Montgomery March, aka Bloody Sunday. Some of those teachers returned to march on Bloody Sunday. 

Loder-Jackson recalls one of those teachers reflecting on that time: “She said, ‘It seemed wrong to us as leaders in the community that we were teaching American history and civics and telling our students that they should grow into first class citizens — when we were not even registered to vote. We did not enjoy full citizenship.’”

How should teachers address the current debate over voting rights and mail-in ballots?

"A teacher’s primary role is to educate students, and drawing on as much quality content as they can about the suffrage movement. … There are teachers who do get involved with voters’ registration. … It’s very important when teachers engage in any kind of political or civic activity to check with their school districts, with their school administrators about what the parameters are [for] doing that,” she says. 

Loder-Jackson adds that voter education was a key form of activism for teachers during the civil rights movement. 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Tondra Loder-Jackson - Professor of Educational Foundations at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and author of “Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Rebecca Mooney